Recent doctors’ studies suggest that many of us aren’t getting enough vitamin D. Are we all wearing too much sunscreen, asks Hilly Janes

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What is vitamin D?

It’s a very important nutrient for the growth of bones and teeth. Recently, scientists have been discovering that it could also play a vital role in protecting us from various diseases.

It is the only vitamin that we can’t get enough of in food. Although available in oily fish, eggs and added to breakfast cereals, spreads and powdered milk, our bodies manufacture most of it when we directly expose our skin to sunlight. Yes, as in sunbathing. Without suncream.

What’s the problem?

Health officials expressed concerns this year, saying that a quarter of the UK population has low levels. One sign of the problem is the increase in cases of rickets from 183 in 1996 to 762 in 2011. This condition involving a softening and weakening of the bones leads to the sort of deformities you’d expect in Oliver Twist, not 21st century Britain. Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to osteomalacia, which causes bone pain and tenderness.

Recent studies have also indicated a strong association between lack of vitamin D and various forms of cancer while tuberculosis sufferers may recover faster if given vitamin D supplements, a September 2012 London study reported. It’s a fascinating reminder of how, in the dark days before the invention of antibiotics, heliotherapy was the TB cure du jour. That’s sunbathing.

The deficiency could be because children are spending more time indoors instead of running around outside, more British women are covering themselves up with suncream, the burqa or niqab and some of our ageing population is housebound. It’s also a geographical problem because in northern climes, the sun isn’t strong enough during the winter months for our bodies to manufacture enough, so we need to catch those rays during the summer.

Why didn’t anyone tell us before?

The problem has only emerged because these shifts in lifestyle and demography are quite recent. It’s also because advice aiming to protect us from the risk of one disease has had the weird unforeseen consequense of exposing us to another. We’ve all heard that too much sun is contributing to rising rates of skin cancer, and been reminded to stay indoors or put on a floppy hat and long-sleeved top and slap on the suncream. There’s no doubt about the sun/cancer link but now it seems there is a balance to be struck between protection and exposure.

What should we do about it?

The NHS advises us to expose our skin directly to sunlight for about 10 to 15 minutes a day from April to October, between 11am and 3pm. You certainly shouldn’t start to burn or redden, but the greater area of skin exposed the less time it takes to manufacture the vitamin D. That should make enough to keep us going throughout the winter months, topped up by the right kind of food.

What about sunbeds?

Not a good idea because they expose our skin to the type of UV light that is a risk factor for skin cancer. In Wales sunbeds are banned for young people under the age of 18 because of the recent rise in the disease in 18 to 25 year olds that has been attributed to their use.

Should I take a supplement?

Yes, says the NHS, for the following:

● those pregnant and breastfeeding (10mg daily)
● all babies and young children from six months to five years old (7.0-8.5 mg daily) unless they are getting it in formula milk
● breastfed babies may need vitamin D drops from the first month if their mother has not taken vitamin D supplements throughout pregnancy. Check the dosage with a pharmacist.
● people aged 65 years and over (10mg daily)
● people who cover their skin or who are housebound or confined indoors for long periods (10mg daily)
● people who have darker skin, for example those of African, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian origin, because they need longer in the sun to make vitamin D, thus increasing their risk of skin cancer (10mg daily).

Health writer Oliver Gillie, who won a lifetime award for work in raising awareness of our vitamin D deficiency, goes further by suggesting that vitamin D3 specifically is required. You can find out more on his website , and also purchase the range of products which he has launched in his campaign to improve intakes and help fund his research.

Any risks?

You can’t get too much vitamin D from sun exposure because our bodies automatically regulate how much we make, but there are risks from taking to high a dose in supplement form, so keep to the recommended dose.

What next?

In early 2012, the Chief Medical Officer for England contacted medical staff to remind them of the government guidelines and the Department of Health has asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to review recommendations on taking vitamin D, but it is not expected to report until 2014. So watch this space. Preferably in the sunshine.

For vitamin D supplements try